Few realise that Pope John Paul II’s visit to Britain was originally instigated by the Knights of St Columba.
My predecessor, Supreme Knight Tony Rouse, took an illuminated address by the Carmelite Sisters in Dumbarton to the Holy Father in Rome, with a request that he visit our country. It was an invitation he looked upon favourably.
Later, the Bishops of Scotland, England and Wales took up the idea and Pope John Paul II decided to become the first Pontiff to visit our shores.
Cardinal Basil Hume called Tony to Westminster to tell him that the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had decided that they wanted the Knights of St Columba to organise the papal visit with them. At that time the decision the Scottish bishops asked for the help of St Vincent de Paul but later many of our members also played a key role at the Bellahouston Mass.
With my election as Supreme Knight I became chief steward for the papal visit to England and Wales. Tony became my assistant.
We decided that the names of steward volunteers would come through our order and go to the security services – more than 80,000 men in total, predominantly Catholic. All of the chief stewards and their lieutenants at the papal visit venues were Brothers in our order. We had meetings with MI5, MI6 and Special Branch and representatives of the Metropolitan Police.
I covered the London events. John Eagan, Martin Cairns and Kevin Austin covered Wembley; Jack McArdle, Martin Cairns and Kevin Austin, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark; Pat Hudson, Roehampton; Michael Maher and Jack McArdle Crystal Palace; myself, Mr Rouse, Martin Cairns and Kevin Austin Westminster; Terry Ford Knavesmire, York; Frank Redmond and Wally Downey Liverpool Cathedral; Tony Flanagan, Coventry; Gerry Thomas, Cardiff.
We decided to corral all of the people attending the outdoor events into groups of 2,000 to 10,000, and that these groups would be roped off with stewards a police officer within each area for any emergencies.
The planning took over a year and a half. This was necessary to get all volunteers cleared by security services and Special Branch, to make the travel arrangements and so forth.
Then, a couple of months before the arrival of the Holy Father, the leader of the Polish government in exile in London asked for a venue for Poles. We did not have a venue or enough stewards to man another event.
When the Polish community was given Crystal Palace, I needed someone to be in charge and Jack McArdle and Michael Maher stepped up. Both men were involved in the Mass at St George’s, Southwark,for the handicapped and infirm, a Mass which Jimmy Savile was also involved in. We had adopted a beret format, different colours for different venues, so that stewards were easily identifiable to a police, so this new request caused problems. The berets used for St George’s were gathered in after the ceremony and sent to Crystal Palace, along with all of the papal colour umbrellas for Communion.
We helped hundreds of thousands of people at the papal events and the conduct of the members of the order, few of whom had any previous crowd control experience, was exemplary.
I met one member in an underpass way beyond the actual event. He had sacrificed his right to go and see the Holy Father at Wembley to do that job.
I was with Chief Superintendent Mike Jeffers of the Metropolitan Police and Geoff Piper, a chief inspector in Special Branch, who was also a member of the order. The Brother apologised for stopping us, but he was still doing his job.
When the Holy Father arrived at Gatwick I ensured that a member of the order would be the first one to greet him there. I was at Wembley probably about six in the morning and then had to go to Westminster, the focal point of the London venues.
Prior to the Holy Father coming into the cathedral, Chief Superintendent Jeffers said that an Orthodox priest had someone with him who was not security cleared.
I spoke to the priest, who answered me with a Ukrainian or at least Eastern European accent, and asked him about his companion. The two started talking.
“Are you Russian?” I asked the man with no clearance. He replied: “Da.” It was flashing through my mind: “We’ve got a Communist in the cathedral.” How times have changed.
The biggest culprit in breaches of security, however, was the Holy Father himself. He just wanted to be in among the people and he wanted to be “hands on”.
I had the extreme good fortune to meet the Holy Father on a number of occasions and you could feel him, sense him, before he came in sight. I thought at that time that this was a man who would have an impact on the world. Apparently at Westminster Pope John Paul II broke from his security to go into the crowd. Once back on the red carpet he saw two police constables. He went to speak to them and they promptly doffed their helmets, genuflected and kissed his ring. Later there was a bit of a panic when the Pope’s personal physician could not be found. He had to be within a few feet of the Holy Father at all times.
After the service, and after the Holy Father had left the altar, a rustling was heard. When the altar cloth was lifted up the physician was in there. Apparently that had been the only place he could find to stay close.
All of the stewards, as soon as the Holy Father came within 164ft of them, had to turn round and face the crowd. They showed remarkable discipline by keeping their backs to him as he went past. Many of them did not even get into the cathedral.
But Pope John Paul II agreed, at our request, to meet all the stewards in the main hall at Westminster Palace.
Many police officers involved in the crowd control also put themselves at some distance from the Holy Father. They did this because they felt it was their duty.
At all of the venues there were remote-controlled television cameras for security and we could keep an eye on all areas of each venue.
The Catholic Police Guild, in particular, was of tremendous help to us. Many of their members were also brothers in our order.
It was not possible for me to be at every venue and still travel to Bellahouston in Glasgow, where I was invited, as a guest, along with my wife, May. It was difficult to get to Scotland in time but I felt it was my duty to be present there.
There had been no crowd disruption at any of the venues. But when my wife and I were walking to Bellahouston Park I saw Pastor Jack Glass and his entourage. They were shouting anti-Pope slogans and the police had confined them at the end of one road near Mosspark Boulevard.
A senior officer of Strathclyde Police told them they were causing a potentially disruptive situation. I remember him saying something like: “All these people have come here today out of happiness. I am not a Catholic. These people have come to see the Pope, who is their spiritual leader. None of them are in a bad mood.
“You are inciting a potential riot. I am going to prevent that possibility happening.” When Pastor Glass asked him how he was going to do that the officer told him: “If you don’t shut up and behave yourself I am going to instruct my officers to take the barricades away and we will escort you into Bellahouston Park. The choice is yours.” The Mass at Bellahouston was something special. The music, the young First Communicants and the Holy Father talking to the children and embracing them: everything was perfect.
He did not hold back from the children or in particular the physically and mentally handicapped people.
After the papal visit the hierarchy of England and Wales asked me if the order would be interested in acquiring the popemobiles free of charge. We thought that we could send at least one of them to Africa as a mobile ambulance. The order is much involved in helping the world’s poor and planned to convert the vehicles at our own expense and pay for them to be shipped and maintained for a year or two. We regarded this as a good proposition. But it was vetoed by the bishops of England and Wales because they felt that spare parts would not be readily available in remote African countries.
Some 18 months after the papal visit I was approached by the International Management Group (IMG) and asked to meet Jeremy Palmer Tompkinson to discuss the papal souvenirs. Problems with papal souvenirs had resulted in suppliers threatening to take the hierarchies of Scotland, England and Wales to court. Contracts had been signed in their name with the suppliers and they had received money up front in view of the potential sales. But several months before Pope John Paul II’s arrival his visit came close to being cancelled because of the Falklands War. I had been summoned by the then Archbishop Thomas Winning to Rome, where he was attempting to convince the Pope not to cancel the visit. I, as Supreme Knight, sent a telegram to the Holy Father, asking him to reconsider. He eventually agreed to do so.
At the meeting with IMG I was told that the Knights of St Columba were the last hope if court proceedings were to be stopped. The Church had already accepted up-front royalties on potential sales. I was asked if the order could sell the remaining souvenirs. It was a much bigger task than stewarding and organising the papal visit itself. I negotiated a deal with the suppliers so that the Knights could carry out sales throughout Britain. There were over a million items and we sold the bulk of them. This exercise cost the order a considerable amount of money, but the manufacturers and agents were paid and audited sales records supplied. A six-figure sum was then given to Papal Visit Ltd of Scotland and Papal Visit Ltd of England and Wales.
Yet some of the manufacturers and retailers proceeded with court action against Cardinal Hume (at the Old Bailey) and Cardinal Gordon Grey (in the Court of Session in Edinburgh).
But when the test case against Cardinal Grey came before a judge, it came to light that the Knights of St Columba had made sure the agreements signed were to the effect that we were acting as agents for the Church and for IMG. The judge said that the agreements they had signed with us meant that their case had failed.
Pat Layden is a Glasgow businessman. Following the papal visit he was informed that he was to be invested as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory and he requested that this wait for some months until he had finished his three years as Supreme Knight of the Knights of St Columba